Unlike many troubled cities in eastern Ukraine, here in downtown Lviv, in western Ukraine, the cobblestone streets are full of shoppers and strollers moving about with at least a facade of normalcy.
But just ahead of presidential elections, and with worries about the future lurking, people hope that Sunday's vote may bring some stability after months of protest and violence – and after Russia's grab of the Crimean peninsula.
Nataliya Masyak, a young child psychiatrist, sits with friends in a busy coffee shop talking politics. “We are all waiting for the elections hoping they will bring some order,” she says. “I really only want there to be one round of voting because of economic resources and because it would be simpler this way.”
Ms. Masyak, who volunteered as a medic during the protests on Independence Square in Kiev, plans to vote for billionaire businessman and politician Petro Poroshenko, whose campaign ads and billboards describe a new life for Ukrainians. So too does Irene Skoropadska, a human resources manager at the Ukrainian Catholic University. But, says Ms. Skoropadska, “I’m not very happy with that choice.” Since independence, she says, voting has been a choice between “big evil and little evil.”
Ukrainians are voting to replace the interim government that has been in power in Kiev since former President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in February.
If needed, a second round of voting will take place June 15. Mr. Poroshenko remains the frontrunner, with a Kiev International Institute of Sociology poll giving him 33.7 percent support. Some 25 percent of voters are still undecided.
Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the faces of the 2004 Orange Revolution, trails with 5.9 percent. While Ms. Tymoshenko had a large constituency in western Ukraine, many here now express a frustration that both she and Poroshenko held positions in previous governments and represent the political old guard.
Located close to the Polish border, Lviv is one of Ukraine’s oldest cities, governed at various periods by Poles, Austrians, and Russians. Today, Russian media and propaganda label it a hotbed of fascists and supporters of Stepan Bandera, a divisive figure in Ukrainian history who some consider a freedom fighter and others a Nazi collaborator.
To Skoropadska, it's all part of what she calls an "information war."
"Putin and his journalists, they are good science fiction writers," she laughs. "They are building some other reality than what is going on here in western Ukraine. I am proud of being called a nationalist.”
Memories of the past seven months in Ukraine and the killings on the Maidan, as Independence Square is known, are strong here. When the protests were just beginning, many citizens from Lviv drove to Kiev to lend their support, going back and forth during months of protest.
Mariya Pohorilko, a Ph.D. student in Ukrainian history, says that it is difficult to speak about the recent events in Ukraine because it marks three months since her fiancé, Bohdan Solchanyk, was killed by a sniper on the Maidan. Mr. Solchanyk was among the more than 100 people who died – now known as the “Heavenly Hundred” and memorialized around Lviv.
“He was an idealist,” Ms. Pohorilko said of Solchanyk, a lecturer in modern history.
Pohorilko made four trips to Kiev to participate in the protests. She didn’t accompany Solchanyk on his last trip. An investigation is ongoing into the killings on Feb. 20, “but it’s happening so slowly,” Pohorilko said. “There’s this feeling that nothing has changed. People have changed, the faces have changed, but the system hasn’t changed.”
But, she says, “people’s thinking has changed a lot and with time it will come into the system of government.”
The last few months of political change in Ukraine are reflected on Tereza Butyter’s table of souvenirs in the Vernissage market. Toilet paper featuring the faces of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Yanukovych is for sale along with golden magnets shaped like loaves of bread, mimicking the large one allegedly found at Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya estate. Door mats have Yanukovych’s face printed on them.
Ms. Butyter says business is steady but not as high as normal. She has noticed fewer foreign tourists, but says people from eastern Ukraine are coming and buying traditional embroidered shirts and wreaths with blue and yellow ribbons representing the Ukrainian flag.
“The national spirit has risen,” Butyter says. “People who were neutral before have become patriots.”
But she begins crying when she recalls hearing radio reports of the students and others killed on the Maidan.
“We paid a very big price,” she says, wiping away her tears. “Now we have to start from ourselves and not give bribes and think about our country, pay our taxes.
"It’s a big process," she adds, "and it won’t happen all at once.”